Making use of time-honored federal government logic—we have to do something about X, and this is something, so we must do this—Hillary Clinton has proposed $500 million in federal spending on school anti-bullying initiatives.
Under Clinton’s plan, titled “Better Than Bullying,” the feds would use the money to essentially bribe states into hiring more school counsellors, developing suicide prevention and mental health programs, re-training teachers, and cracking down on cyberbullying. Tax increases would pay for it, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Supporters argue the program is necessary because bullying is on the rise—and it’s all Donald Trump’s fault, the Clinton campaign alleges.
Indeed, this has become a Clinton talking point. “Teachers and parents call it the ‘Trump effect,’” she said during the second presidential debate. “Bullying is up. A lot of people are feeling uneasy, a lot of kids are expressing their concerns.”
The National Education Association—the country’s most powerful teachers’ union, and an important pillar of support for the former secretary of state—has seized upon the idea that Trump’s candidacy has somehow made schoolyard bullying worse. “Amid Trump-inspired spike in school bullying, Clinton announces national initiative,” is how the NEA heralded Clinton’s plan on its website. Another NEA headline: “‘Trump Effect’ elicits ‘disgraceful’ behavior from some students, strikes fear in others, educators say.”
This is a transparently politically useful argument for Team Clinton: my opponent is making your kids less safe! Think of the children! But is it true?
We have no idea.
The NEA has cited the anecdotal evidence of a handful of its members. It also cited a Southern Poverty Law Center survey that found the Trump campaign was producing “an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color.” But:
Our survey of approximately 2,000 K-12 teachers was not scientific. Our email subscribers and those who visit our website are not a random sample of teachers nationally, and those who chose to respond to our survey are likely to be those who are most concerned about the impact of the presidential campaign on their students and schools.
So that doesn’t count. But can we do better?
As it so happens, the National Center for Education Statistics collects scientifically sound data on teen bullying rates. Unfortunately, the most recently available data is for the year 2013 (it was published in 2015). Data for 2014 won’t be released for a few more months. Data that takes into account the “Trump effect” won’t be available for years, presumably.
“2013 is the most recent year for which we have published data on student bullying,” NCES’s Lauren Musu-Gillette told me via email.
Still, the 2013 figures were interesting. According to the NCES, 22 percent of kids ages 12-18 were bullied at school in 2013. That was an improvement over previous years: the bullying rate was 28 percent in 2011 and 2009, and 32 percent in 2007. School bullying, it seems, is falling.
Has Trump singlehandedly reversed this trend? There are no data to support such an assertion.
It may even be the case that perceived bullying is rising even as actual bullying continues to fall. That’s because “bullying” is prone to something psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls “concept creep.” For behavior to be considered bullying, it used to have meet certain criteria: a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim, intentionality, and repetition. These days, bullying is typically defined more broadly, as virtually any form of unwanted behavior.
In light of evolving definitions, Haidt is concerned that grand efforts to combat bullying—broadly defined—might be ill-advised.
“The concept of bullying has experienced such massive concept creep in psychology and education circles that these new programs are likely to target a great deal of the normal conflict kids have with each other,” he told me via email. “Such a policy focus is likely to intensify the victimhood culture and moral dependency that has been growing so rapidly on college campuses.”
Colleges have fallen victim to administrative bloat: They have hired more and more non-teaching personnel, causing tuition to skyrocket. Clinton’s anti-bullying plan would likely have the same effect, encouraging K-12 schools to employ more counsellors and social workers. What happens when the federal funding runs out? This new anti-bullying bureaucracy won’t just go away.
To recap: We don’t know if bullying is getting worse, let alone whether Trump is the cause. And we don’t really know whether hiring an army of non-teaching staff would lessen the problem. But Clinton wants the federal government to throw another $500 million at it anyway.